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Why Do We Pave Paradise?

Playa Cocles

 

“Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone. They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” ~ Joni Mitchell, Big Yellow Taxi

 

Costa Rica

 

My mom has always been a huge Joni Mitchell fan. Maybe because they share the same name, because my Mom was a flower child in the 60s, or because Joni Mitchell is unarguably brilliant. Whatever the reason, she played Joni in our house a lot growing up. Back in those days, when I teased my Mom for listening to a woman who sounded like a twelve year old choir boy, I had no idea that a Joni Mitchell song would one day become the soundtrack for my life.

 

Pave Paradise  - 03

 

Living in the Pacific Northwest my family took me hiking and camping every summer. On the trails my Dad taught me about plants, trees, and animals. We ate wild huckleberries, stargazed, and bathed in shivering cold lakes. At home we recycled vigilantly, my Mom composted before it was trendy, and we even grew some of our own food.

 

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Yet most of my life I spent in the city. Where I needed a car and a smart phone and fancy shoes. Despite the attempts of my parents to bring me into nature on the weekends, I had no idea how much I loved the earth until I went to the South Caribbean of Costa Rica. I felt like a kid again skipping down deserted beaches, lounging on palm trees, eating food from the jungle, and sleeping to the sounds of creatures in the wild.

 

Bangkok

 

It wasn’t until I arrived in Southeast Asia that I realized I had been living in a bubble.

 

Hanoi

 

I searched for organic produce in countries like Vietnam with soil contaminated from years of war. I begged to refill my plastic water bottle and recycle in a part of the world that dumps trash into the ocean. I longed for privacy on the beach in places that develop resorts and casinos right on the shoreline. I considered that perhaps concepts like sustainability and environmentalism are luxuries reserved for first world hippies like myself.

 

Koh Rong

 

Then finally, I found it. Paradise. They called it Koh Rong, I called it so right. It had dozens of jaw droppingly gorgeous hidden beaches. It had wild untamed jungle. It had no roads and no cars. Over a matter of days I felt myself feeling good again. I felt happier than I had been since I left Costa Rica. The nature began to heal me without me doing anything but allowing it to.

 

koh rong

 

Based on the government plans for Koh Rong, I knew that this paradise too would be lost. Just like the once mythical islands in Thailand. They plan to model it after Koh Samui with an international airport, resorts, and casinos.

 

Koh Rong

 

While I swam completely alone in the clearest water I’ve ever seen in my life on a beach with sand as white as snow, I tried to savor every moment knowing that one day it might be gone.

 

Koh Rong

 

Just a few months later when I came back to Cambodia, I knew I had to go back to Koh Rong. I considered living there for a few months to savor it even longer. But it was already lost. The number of guesthouses on the harbor already quadrupled and the once rough boat ride was replaced with speedboats and daytrippers on snorkeling tours coming several times a day. Wasted backpackers took drugs openly in the middle of the day and that powder white beach where I once swam alone was covered in tourists. I couldn’t wait to leave. It broke my heart.

 

Playa Cocles

 

Experiences like this reminded me how much I missed Costa Rica. I believed that kind of mistreatment of the land would never happen here. Though many people tell me it already happened to Jaco and Tamarindo. I’ve always avoided these overdeveloped party towns because of it. I knew Costa Rica through deserted beaches. I knew Costa Rica as a place where one could be alone with the sound of the waves.

 

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So I came back to Puerto Viejo more than a year later during what people once called the “low season.” Three months later and just a few weeks away from the holidays and I’m still waiting for low season to begin.

 

Playa Cocles

 

My secret spots where I would go to be alone with nature are now always occupied. Where I once swam naked in the ocean there are always tourists walking by. In the past I rarely met someone who had heard of Puerto Viejo let alone been here, and now my inbox is flooded with messages from readers heading here every day. Big shot New York investors who recently purchased an Eco Lodge outside of town approached me about helping them build a location down on the beach. Nature Air recently announced regular flights from San Jose to the nearby Limon airport. Most shockingly of all, on a press trip that I took through the Costa Rica Tourism Board, the only beach town we visited was Puerto Viejo.

 

Playa Cocles

 

It’s as if Costa Rica’s red headed stepchild suddenly had her braces removed and grew boobs. Now the whole world wants a piece of her.

 

Manzanillo

 

I’ve been hearing that Manzanillo, the wildest place in the South Caribbean where you still hear more Patois than Spanish and the jungle will eat you if you don’t take care, has recently had a facelift. The trails where I slipped in the mud and jumped intrepidly into coral caves are being cultivated to accommodate the comforts of tourists. Specifically paths have been created with gravel and steps and an entire bridge and deck was built around the lookout point to make it “safer.” Admittedly I’ve been too afraid to go and see it for myself. Pretty soon they’ll even charge an admission fee.

 

Playa Cocles

 

Friends of mine who have lived here for ten years or more tell me stories of a time before the road was paved when you could swim out from the beach with sea turtles. When the Afro Caribbean culture reigned and you could hear Calypso and smell curry on every corner. I can only imagine that Puerto Viejo in my dreams.

 

Playa Cocles

 

A well established business owner in the community raised the very valid point that those of us with nothing more tethering us to Costa Rica than our tourist stamp and a rusty bicycle have no right to have an opinion on what happens here. That it’s up to the registered voters of Costa Rica and the officials they have elected. And that’s true and valid and I respect that opinion.

 

Playa Cocles

 

But as a child of the earth don’t I have a right to hurt when I see the chopping down of trees? As a citizen of the world don’t I have a right to want a few places on earth where I can still see nature not rearranged by a man?

 

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Besides, I’ve seen how flawed Democracy can be and how environmental preservation hardly interests the money hungry. Places where I see tourism booming I mostly see an elite few profiting. I don’t see an improvement in the overall standard of living of the people.

 

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And what does a higher standard of living even mean in a tropical paradise like Costa Rica? That now everyone can afford to have iPhones? At what cost? At the cost of being able to independently feed ourselves? So that people can buy white bread and hydrogenated peanut butter because the trees no longer bear fruit and the sea no longer has life?

 

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A laywer in New York City could get laid off and find himself homeless and starving on the street because there’s nothing alive in the city to support him. But in Puerto Viejo it’s different. You could live naked in a tree, drink out of coconuts, eat fish right out of the ocean, and forage for fruits and vegetables in the forest. You could spend absolutely no money and live a beautiful life.

 

Playa Cocles

 

I wonder how much longer that will be the case here. I wonder how much longer that will be the case anywhere.

 

Pave Paradise  - 14

 

We seem to be so blinded by the falsehood that we don’t have enough electronics, or designer shoes, or whatever it is that we think that we need that at the end of the day might be fun but doesn’t feed us physically, emotionally, or spiritually. The more we create a world where we “need” more of these material things the more we destroy the intricate system created by nature that actually provides us with everything that we need. When we tear down a forest to build condos we actually take away our habitat. When we destroy nature we destroy our ability as animals to survive.

 

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What so many of us seem to forget when we screen ourselves off from the bugs, separate our feet from the dirt, and look at the world from behind a screen, is that we are not in fact living in reality. And what makes a jaguar majestic, what makes a beach stunning, what makes an adventure life changing is that it is wild. It cannot be controlled. It forces us to surrender. And by not bending to our will it challenges us to see who we really are. When we try to capture and control and domesticate what is wild, we destroy it. We take away the very essence of what we loved in the first place.

 

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In trying to create a manufactured paradise we destroy the real one.

 

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Yet here I am writing this from my MacBook Pro, in my comfortable bed, in my comfortable house, eating almonds imported from California. And I have to ask myself, how am I influencing this development? How are we all influencing the spread of resorts when we ask for wifi and hot water and a/c?

 

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How am I as a travel writer responsible? How have I affected the future of Puerto Viejo simply by writing about it? How have I influenced things just by being a foreigner and coming here to begin with?

 

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One might say that makes me a hypocrite. I believe it makes me a human. So instead of pointing the blame onto government, or society, or developers, or anyone else, realizing I’m a part of this system too, I will ask myself why. Why do I need to pave paradise?

 

Playa Cocles

 

Maybe when each of us asks ourselves that question we will finally wake up and see.

 

 


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Comments

  1. Glad you asked yourself those same questions at the end. Just be happy from within no matter the change around you. You, too often, look around and see the negative with society, from my bird’s eye view. Change is inevitable and you gotta learn to roll with it and find the beauty in everything. Earth has never been too much lalaland anywhere. People have suffered all over great Earth. I think it’s just that you have been shielded by so much privilege that you forget things sometimes…as you did in Vietnam. For many, it’s about sheer survival on a day to day basis (and sometimes those locals need those jobs coming in by the new construction or tourism just to feed their families…and for them to have a cell phone where they can call home to their family in another area of the country becomes a blessing…not a curse)… You and I can sit back and talk “lofty world eco” topics because we have never been truly faced with the plight of just surviving in this world. I applaud your ideals overall, but think you aren’t really adding much to the world you are becoming so disgruntled by in so many of your blog posts. It’s great you have your macbook and readily available wifi and ability to travel….well, consider that they might want some luxuries having lived a much tougher existence than you in their years. I don’t know, Camille. Perhaps getting involved in some ongoing humanitarian projects might help you not get so disillusioned. Perhaps that would help you not get so upset about your old nooks and crannies in paradise. I am certain you can find some more quiet spots there. We have to learn to share our worlds. Change is the constant, dear. Wishing you solace.

    • Camille Willemain Says: November 24, 2014 at 10:20 pm

      Thank you for expressing another viewpoint. To me, the fact that we’re even having this conversation and that someone cares enough to comment means that I’m already adding something to the world. Starting to ask these questions is valuable in and of itself. You’re right, I don’t know what it’s like to not have “stuff” the same way someone without “stuff” doesn’t know what it’s like to have it. In that regard none of us is actually qualified in determining how much more they suffer than any other human. One could argue that trying to do so is actually belittling. I can say that I’ve never seen a person in Puerto Viejo go hungry. When they want to feed their families they go fishing or pick papayas from their back yards. Not so the case in countries that are so developed they’ve rid themselves of their natural food supply. I’ll keep living and creating and sharing, trusting that through shining that light I can make a difference. Thank you for reading and for making this a conversation. It’s an important conversation for people to have.

      • Don’t you think that when you and so many other bloggers write about these places you are drawing more attention to these secluded areas? In the beginning you wrote something about how people blow up your inbox now. It’s things like that this is slowly killing these places. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve read almost every article you’ve posted and I really enjoy them but like you said in another article, is it really worth that extra like or follower?

        • Camille Willemain Says: April 17, 2015 at 1:56 am

          I hear you Megan and this is something I go back and forth on. Of course when we write about these places we have the ability to increase tourism. However, we also have the ability to open people’s eyes about what’s happening in the world beyond the one they live in. We have the ability to encourage people to travel mindfully, aware of the impact that they have as tourists. I meet locals all of the time who feel honored and blessed that they have the ability to meet people from all over the world, because of tourism. I met a man today in Morocco who told me he’s never left his country but he feels like he’s traveled the world because of the travelers he talks with. We have the ability to inspire to expand people while traveling, to put loving energy into the places we visit, the same way we have the ability to corrupt a culture and to dishonor the land. I try to encourage people to bless themselves and the places that they visit through my writing.

    • I read an article about a girl who was doing volunteer work for kids in a third world country. She talked about the children she was working with constantly asking for her Iphone, money, valuables ect. In the end she didn’t feel like she was actually helping these people because it became something like feeding bread to the ducks how they stop focusing on how to feed themselves and just wait by the humans! She decided to visit the neighboring town which didn’t have much for tourism or organizations bringing money in. They were a completely functional little town with little money, but they actually had resources like food and clothes that they all traded. They didnt want her to bring her Iphone in and said it would be an insult. Moral of her story was that it is not empowering to a country to come in and throw money at them. It is empowering to help them help themselves

  2. Hi Camille,
    “don’t it always seem to go, you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone..”

    It’s so great to see you having such reverence for nature, and an appreciation for the transient state you find it in. Thank you for the memories of Joni and all the beautiful photos.

    Love,
    Mom

  3. The speed that these places are paved have been greatly excelerated by what you do for a living. If you want to protect them change jobs. I too have have found paradise in the Carabien and it is in a state of flux. We as humans don’t see what is evident to some of us. These places you write about will all be distroyed as the oceans rise and warm. Coral all gone, native fish moving to cooler waters. Some call it global warming but I call it evolution. Enjoy it while it lasts, I will because there is a herd of human lemmings running toward the cliff. There are just to many of us on the planet for paradise to survive…

  4. Yes its a fact, tooo many Humans! These humans all must use resources to sustain themselves, so just like the comment b 4 this. Global warming, n all that entails…development, big corporations take over, its everywhere. Look at bali, mexico, a big polluted mess! I was there in the 70’s, the population has doubled since then!!The impact is $&@# crazy!! Imagine if people would stop having offspring, that is the only way towards a “sustainable ” Future! Seriously. People have even picked all the seashells off the beaches to sell in hawaii. That now they snorkel dive for em. Hard for find now, i wonder if all the cocos will b gone too, esp if everyone drinks 3-5 a day like you admonish! Your blog definitely adds to the paving of paradise!!!
    Peace n Love
    Harmony. :)

    • Camille Willemain Says: November 25, 2014 at 8:25 am

      Thanks for your comment Harmony. My intention with my blog is to show people a way to travel and live consciously, which I actually hope can possibly help people look at the world differently so that they don’t pave paradise. Keep in mind that coconuts grow abundantly, are local, and sustainable here, which is actually much better for the earth than going to the store and buying a plastic bottle of water. I don’t drink coconuts when I’m in the USA, only when I’m in places where they grow.

  5. Such a great post! Thanks. Puerto Viejo is indeed a very different animal than she was 14 years ago. My god, every time I come, I see more cabinas/restaurants and less trees, bush, etc. I understand your post so well, there you are contributing to paving of paradise, but fully aware that you are doing so. It’s not easy. What is an American Girl to do? Not live where she feels the most comfortable and at home? No, you need to keep living wherever it is that makes you happy. But, if it really bothers you, perhaps you could agree not to accept gifts/money from organizations that promote tourism in the very areas you say are already overrun by tourists, and you could do some volunteer work with the many organizations in Puerto Viejo that are trying to do good work in sustaining the beautiful place you call home. Perhaps you are already volunteering, but just don’t write about it, but me thinks this would be far more effective than writing a blog about your feelings about it. Doing is just as important as expressing.

    • Camille Willemain Says: November 26, 2014 at 12:57 pm

      Hi Katy, thanks it’s nice to hear from someone who also knows PV well :) Yes there are many things that I do here to try to support the community. First and foremost, I live as sustainably as I can. I live in simple homes owned by locals, ride a bicycle exclusively, buy all of my produce from the farmer’s market, refill my water so I don’t buy plastic, and I teach community yoga classes that raise money for different causes. I also try to write a blog that brings people’s awareness to the complex issues involved in travel so that they do so mindfully. Develop will continue everywhere in the world whether I write or not, but if I write something that makes even one person think, I feel like I’ve done something worthwhile.

  6. “You could live naked in a tree, drink out of coconuts, eat fish right out of the ocean, and forage for fruits and vegetables in the forest. You could spend absolutely no money and live a beautiful life.”

    Yes, it could be a beautiful life in many ways, but it’s a hard one, and one that only leaves the joy of just being. I’m an artist. I have the luxury of being an artist because I don’t have to worry about my survival everyday. I don’t have to hunt for food, prepare meat, worry about shelter during storms, deal with crippling heat in a dry season or dangerous damp in a wet one. I can spend my time focusing on my passion. I ask myself too about why we pave paradise. So much of “progress” is unnecessary and merely damaging to the earth. But I look backwards… far backwards. Why did people decide they wanted to create towns in the first place? What made them organize and build societies beyond hunter-gatherer ones?

    The thing is that survival for life’s sake is all well and good, but it doesn’t fulfill everyone. I wish that everyone on earth had the opportunity to pursue their deep yens and passions like I have been able to. Like you too as you travel the world pursuing your passion for the planet.

    My biggest frustration with development around tourism is exactly like you said: “Places where I see tourism booming I mostly see an elite few profiting. I don’t see an improvement in the overall standard of living of the people.” So I’m looking for ways to help people… maybe I’ll be able to travel to some of those more remote places…those “paradises.” I hope so.

    • Camille Willemain Says: November 26, 2014 at 12:54 pm

      Thank you Sarah. You raise some really excellent points. I guess the question is, how can we continue to create without destroying?

      • Yeah, that really is the question. Personally, I feel like the solution is an obvious one: make sure everyone has the opportunity and ability to have the basics (food, clean water, heat, medical care … also the basic wants: electricity, internet) and only build where needed always being mindful of sustainability and being environmentally conscious…. But that’s kind of the “when pigs fly” dream of a ‘Star Trek’-esque universe. The unfortunate combination of greed and lack of consideration for others is one the most destructive forces we have as humans.

        • Camille Willemain Says: November 30, 2014 at 6:07 pm

          Thanks Sarah. Yes you’re right we all need to develop a conscious attitude to create a world that is sustainable. I believe it’s possible, we just need to rewrite our story :)

  7. Anne Morrison Says: November 25, 2014 at 11:22 pm

    I thoroughly enjoy your blogs. I think its very courageous to open yourself up and subject yourself to others sometimes brutal opinions. I totally understand what you mean. We as humans are the problem. This earth is here for us and we mistreat it so badly all in the name of ” Greed”. I believe Greed is the number one problem on earth. I believe in living off what God put here for us to live off of. But we are destroying what is here for us in the name of greed. For example.. I love elephants but if poachers don’t stop killing them for the ivory they will be extinct very soon. And We as humans seem to never be satisfied with what we have. Always looking to get the next biggest thing. We are always trying to fill a void that we have inside so we fill it with stuff but when that’s not enough anymore we try to fill it with more stuff. But we will never be satisfied with stuff. We need to find inner peace.We need to do exactly what you are doing. Get rid of most of the stuff in our lives, live very simply and get back to nature with meditation, prayer and trying to be happy in our own skin.

    • Camille Willemain Says: November 26, 2014 at 12:51 pm

      Thank you Anne for your words of support and for your wise insights. I agree with you entirely. It’s all about learning to find happiness from within and simplifying our lives.

  8. I have to admit that my plans to visit Costa Rica, and your town, were inspired by your blog. That said, it’s going to be paved whether I visit or now, so I may as well have the experience.

    I feel like I’ve contributed my bit to slowing the problem by not having kids – the problem is mostly because of an overpopulated world. The good news is that it will vanish once people do. Climate change is a good first step, but we need a good plague, too. Drop the worlds population by 99% and we’ll have wild places in abundance for a long time.

    In the meantime, I’m going to keep traveling and exploring.. There’s only so much one person can do and I’ve done my share…

    • Camille Willemain Says: November 30, 2014 at 8:57 am

      Thanks Rob for your insights. I think the key is for each of us to travel mindfully, which it sounds like you already do. I hope you enjoy Costa Rica and Puerto Viejo :)

      • I’m sure my time there, in the fall or perhaps next spring, will be great. Maybe you’ll still be there teaching yoga and I’ll join in for a class or two…:)

        • Camille Willemain Says: November 30, 2014 at 6:09 pm

          Maybe I will be back then! Either way definitely take a class with Avani, she’s amazing and the person who taught me :)

  9. Camille, thank you again for your insight and courage. I feel very much in the same boat. I also consider myself a child of the earth who grew up with and continues to grow with Joni’s mantras. I deeply love wild places. I also value heart-centered community, culture, and all the wonderful things that come about when humans live positively with one another and the earth. As an American gal who resonates with wild beaches in particular, I’m feeling a bit cornered these days. With the exception of Hawaii which I have yet to explore, I’m having trouble finding a place within my “country”‘s boundaries to call home. On the other hand, I have the nomadic gene and enjoy expanding my perception of the world through conscious travel. Although I will be yet another “tourist” when I journey to Costa Rica in a few weeks, I hope to contribute in some way to the strengthening of wild community there. Your blog has been inspirational in assuring me that I am not alone–we and so many others want the same thing. Please know that you are adding very much light and love where you are and through the vast connector of the interweb! Keep it shining, chica. :)

    • Camille Willemain Says: February 8, 2016 at 4:42 pm

      Thank you for this very sweet comment angel! You seem like such a beautiful person and I’m sure you will gain much from traveling in Costa Rica and lend your light to every patch of Earth you touch :) xoxoox